Ink sketch of the tortoise from Aesop's Fables, 1894

Are you Hare or Tortoise?

The idea of writing slowly appeals to me because it comes from Aesop’s fable of the hare and the tortoise. Perhaps you remember it.

The hare challenges the tortoise to a race, which he’s obviously the favourite to win. Everyone knows a hare moves much faster than a tortoise. As expected, the hare shoots ahead, then slows for a well-deserved rest, since there’s no way the tortoise will ever catch up. Meanwhile, the tortoise just plods along and eventually passes the hare, who has fallen into a deep sleep by the side of the road. The hare wakes up, just in time to watch the tortoise cross the finish line first.

Now perhaps the moral of the story is something like: slow and steady wins the race. Well, sure, that’s a good moral. And it’s true too: if you just keep on going you’ll achieve far more than if you give up. Obviously.

Another popular interpretation is that ‘pride comes before a fall’. Everyone knew the hare was fast, so why did he have to boast about it? And by trying to beat a tortoise, of all creatures?

I think of myself as someone who hasn’t been quick to publish. I think that because its completely, starkly true. There are others much quicker than me (for example, everyone who ever published). But if publishing quickly is your key metric, there’s now a big problem.

Too fast to keep up

On Amazon there are hundreds or even thousands of genre fiction writers who are writing a novel a month or even faster, just to satisfy the voracious appetite of the algorithm. If they slow down their pace even a little, the site loses sight of them and they risk sinking back down towards obscurity - so all they can do is keep going, writing faster and faster, and with the assistance of AI tools if necessary. In relation to these prolific authors, everyone is writing slowly.

But now that AI has worked out how to tell a coherent story too, the humans, however fast, have no chance. Bots are writing for themselves, and they can write far, far quicker than any human could possibly keep up. If all that matters is quantity, we’re sorted - AI will make mountains of it.

In 2023 for example, the news reported literary journals closing their books to new entries because they were simply overwhelmed by automated entries that the editors couldn’t tell apart from the stories written by humans. And with so many entries they didn’t have time to check anyway1.

So from now on, by most metrics, all humans are writing slowly. Let’s face it, in relation to the machines, we’re second best, no longer gold medal material. It’s enough to induce a bout of Promethean shame.

Each of these moments of innovation involves an emotion similar to what German philosopher Günther Anders called ‘Promethean shame’. This is the feeling that technology is embarrassing us by pointing out our human limitations. We’re just not as good at doing things as the tech that we invented to ‘help’ us do it. In Anders' original formulation the shame arose in the observation of high quality manufactured goods. What was it shame of? That we were born, not manufactured (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, 1956). In the face of the latest AI panic, we’re asking, yet again: if the tools don’t really need us, what’s the point of humans at all?

Keep your eye on the finish line

But for me, the key message of the fable of the hare and the tortoise isn’t about how you’ll win the race if you just keep going. I don’t really have any problem with keeping going. I’m tenacious and have a lot of inertia. That means I find it hard to start, but equally hard to stop. No, for me the moral of the fable of the hare and the tortoise is quite different.

The story reminds me that I’ve only won when I cross the finish line. Anything else isn’t a victory. That means it’s OK to write slowly, but what I need to keep sight of is finishing something, anything, and shipping it. It’s not enough to actually write, however fast or slow. What matters is publishing, in whatever form, for whatever audience.

But maybe the process is what matters

One of my role models is the Argentinian author César Aira. He’s written a very large number of novels and novellas (at least 80 - around two to five per year since 1993), published by a variety of presses. That’s a lot of races and a lot of finish lines crossed.

Even if you met another Aira fan it would be unlikely you’d both have read the same Aira books, because there are just so many of them. And of course, Aira’s has written a novel called The Hare - but who, even among Aira enthusiasts, has read it? In other words, Aira’s oeuvre is more the record of a particular creative process than it is a body of work to be read in its entirety.

Indeed, the critic Marcello Balvé says Aira’s many novels are “stepping stones, a trail of crumbs leading to a place as close to the molten heart of creation as it is possible to come without burning up.” That’s a bit overheated, but why not2?

Which way are you running?

The story of the hare and the tortoise reminds me too that while I can’t really control my top speed, I can at least control the length and direction of the race I’m running. I often think in terms of writing a whole book, or even a series of books - only to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task I’ve set myself.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Aira only writes short books, but he publishes roughly two a year. A book is made out of chapters, and chapters are built from sections, and sections are made from paragraphs and sentences. In fact, the road to a complete book passes necessarily through a series of completed short pieces, each no harder to write than this one I’m writing right now. I could rein in my ambitions, and publish as I go, one idea at a time.

That way, instead of never completing anything, I’ll always be completing something. And publishing it for you to read, exactly as I’m doing now.

But whether I’m a tortoise or a hare, or even a person who resists anthropomorphizing animals just for the sake of a cheap fable, or even a person who’s uncomfortable with running and competition metaphors, all the same I’m running my own race: watch me win.

More on writing slowly

You can get a lot done by writing slowly

Why I’m writing slowly

Writing about my worm farm

Thoughts are nest-eggs. Thoreau on writing

More on Artificial intelligence (AI) and large language models (LLMs)

Despite AI, the Internet is still personal

Can AI give me ham off a knee?

More than ever, embracing your humanity is the way forward

Jules Verne could have told us AI is not a real person

Gaslit by machinery that calls itself a person

  1. In the case of reading magazine submissions, the threat of AI imitating humans is a little overblown. To maintain a manageable slush pile you simply need to introduce some little task that only a human could perform. You could accept only manuscripts that were sent in the mail, for example. This immediately kills the zero-cost proposition of submitting AI-written stories. And when that gets gamed, you could decide to read only those submissions with a hand-written address on the envelope. In other words, if you only want to accept human labour, you just need to request human labour. Re-introduce any human work at all, and the cost benefits of automation are curtailed or even eliminated. ↩︎

  2. If you’re using crumbs to reach the molten heart of creation, they’ll pretty soon be toast. ↩︎